Friday, September 2, 2011

Shields in fantasy

The first memorable shield I ever read about was Athena’s, which bore the head of the Gorgon Medusa. Continuing the Greek motif, the movie Troy had the Greeks using shields in a testudo formation, plus Brad Pitt Achilles made good use of his during fights.

But there weren’t too many famous shields in fantasy, which is understandable. Swords are offensive weapons; shields are defensive. You can barely read classic or heroic fantasy without tripping over a sword that’s special in some way; not so for shields. When I started thinking of shields, though, numerous ideas came to mind.


On a battlefield where combatants had their faces covered, shields could be used as an identifying device, hence the practice of painting them with a knight’s coat of arms. Of course, they don’t necessarily have to sport such a crest. They might simply be designed in such a way as to strike fear into their opponents – worked with a snarling face, for instance, or constructed of human bones.

That being said, keep the environment and the technological level of the society in mind. Not to mention the strength of whoever’s lifting the shield; a slab of granite studded with diamonds may turn aside any weapon, but it’s also completely impractical.


Highly polished shields could be mirrors. Prince Oberyn Martell makes good use of such a shield in a climactic battle in George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords. Although he had to wait for the sun to emerge. Maybe someone with a spelled shield might be able to make it glow so fiercely that opponents would be forced to look away – if the shield bore the image of a sun, perhaps?

A shield could also have a design that produces the opposite effect. Say, a hypnotic swirl that mesmerizes opponents, or at least gives them a splitting headache. Or what if it’s a featureless blank that takes on the image of whatever most affected an enemy?


This is the best part, because almost anything can be done to make shields dangerous. Maybe they attract the enemy’s weapon as if it’s magnetized – meaning it’s all but yanked out of his hand. Or they could repel weapons instead.

They could be enchanted so that their wielder can see them, but the enemy can’t. They could suddenly (and scarily) sprout long clawed tendrils or chains when an enemy is within arm’s-length, trying to grab him.

They might be the portals to abysses that are terrifying and yet compelling at the same time. You can’t look away from the black nothingness before you, and yet you know that whatever goes into it – whether it’s your weapon or your arm – won’t be coming out again.

That was fun to write.


Anonymous said...

In some versions of Archimedes story he used polished bronze shields to reflect solar energy and burn roman ships approaching Syracuse.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks, ralfast! That's a great use of shields, not to mention of science in warfare.